When we think of an acclaimed artist today, it’s no longer an artist with gold-framed paintings at the Louvre in Paris. Now, it's all about collectible brand collaborations, like the basketball Daniel Arsham created for Tiffany & Co., or Takashi Murakami designing his own pair of Crocs. It's a tried and true formula for both the artist and brand to reach new audiences and create a coveted product more accessible to the masses than your traditional painting. And it's typically these artists who create the products with the crossover between art and commerce that fulfill the definitionof a modern collectible.
Long gone are the days of art world snobbery, where artists would turn their noses up to brand collabs. Artists who want to connect with the hype-obsessed Gen Z are taking risks in fashion they wouldn't have done 10 years ago. But artists must still generate a story or point of view in those partnerships to break through the oversatured world of collabs. As Toni Eagar, a professor of marketing at Australian National University notes: “If the audience doesn’t believe in the collaboration as an authentic effort to ‘create,’ then it is likely to fail.”
But what makes an artist hypeworthy? And what makes a hypeworthy artist worthy of a brand collab? Do they have to be “Instagram safe,” in terms of a high follower count, or do they just need to have cool cred by their cult-like association to skate brand Supreme?
Though different in styles and mediums, the artists who have achieved that status share certain commonalities. For one, they offer the brands something they can’t get on their own. “Artist collaborations help brands to offer newness, driving traffic and sales,” said Luca Solca, the senior research analyst at Global Luxury Goods.
And once an artist has proven their ability to drive sales, their profile only grows in both the commercial and fine art worlds, leading to yet more collabs, prestige and potentially large-scale exhibitions.
Despite his platform, you won’t find KAWS waxing philosophical about his artwork anytime soon. Though he started out with subvertising (pasting subversive collages onto street fashion advertising), he gained notoriety in 2008 for his first product collaboration, in the form of skateboard decks with streetwear brand Supreme, and has since gone on on to design a pair of Air Max 90s for Nike (which today go for $2,000 on eBay), a cognac bottle for Hennessy and his own capsule collection for Dior Homme.
Now, the artist is worth $14 million. When I interviewed KAWS in 2021, he explained to me how his Brooklyn Museum retrospective was purposefully up for interpretation. “For me, it’s a way to put the work I’ve been making for the past 20 or 25 years, and put it in front of people, and they’ll take from it what they can,” he said at the time.
Deflecting any sort of definition is what makes his artwork attractive to brands. What matters is that the work is popular and speaks to a younger generation, who are likely to buy his products because it connotes coolness without any prescribed agenda.
“I’m not trying to impose a way to feel about a work, I’m just sort of making the work and putting it into the world,” said KAWS.
He is essentially following in the footsteps of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who has collaborated with everyone from Louis Vuitton to Vans, Supreme and Uniqlo, and as he told the New York Times in 2005: “It looks like political art, but I am just joking.” The artist often shies away from making any clear definition of political frameworks in his art. While other artists have used brand collabs to speak up for a cause, or give a voice to the voiceless, many brand-savvy artists are apolitical.
Kristin Kohler Burrows, senior director of management consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal Consumer Retail Group, says this could change, however.
“The artists that brands choose to collaborate with usually have a pop art aesthetic, art that is modern, approachable and understandable,” she said. “I do think, however, in an age where brands are taking more political stances that in the future, we could see collaborations with artists who do make political statements.”
In 2014, art critic Jerry Saltz defined a prevailing style at the time called “Zombie Formalism” as art created for online consumption. In his own words, it’s “tailor-made for instant digital distribution and viewing via jpeg on portable devices.”
It sells fast, too. “Collectors needn’t see shows of this work, since it offers so little visual or material resistance,” wrote Saltz. “You see and get it fast, and then it doesn’t change. There are no complex structural presences to assimilate, few surprises, and no unique visual iconographies or incongruities to come to terms with. It’s frictionless, made for trade. Art as bitcoin.”
Artist brand collabs share many features of zombie formalism, except abstraction has been replaced by patterns, emoji-like, simple, flat characters and anonymous figures, like the KAWS Companion, a Disney-esque character with large ears and “X” for eyes, Damien Hirst’s famed spot paintings, rows of flat circles on a white background, or Takashi Murakami's rainbow-hued flowers, a motif he has been creating since 1995.
Let’s face it: Many of the artists that we see collaborating with fashion brands today are men, as “art bros” have infiltrated the art world. In 2015, artist Jennifer Chan wrote about this fraternity, breaking the Art Bros down into three categories: Alpha Bro, Beta Bro, and Omega Bro, with varying levels of aggression towards their turbo capitalistic careers.
“The alpha art bro is shameless, confident, sociopathically opportunistic, and defensive with professional critique,” says Chan. Regardless of gender, each art bro has inherent privilege.
“You are an art bro if you're a man or a woman who thinks the art world is equal as is, and that there are no internal politics that exclude certain artists from participating and being as visible as you are,” she wrote.
The art bro makes art for men. It's from the male gaze to the male viewer. It makes sense menswear brands would catch onto this, consciously or not. The many streetwear brands that work with these artists are usually helmed by men, even though women typically work behind the scenes, whether as the studio managers, artist assistants, the publicists, or the in-studio makers of the actual artworks.
“The art bro mostly validates the voices and work of men, in the same way men quote the words of other men who quote the words of other men–patrilineage produces patriarchy. Art bros don't believe in community or solidarity,” wrote Chan.
An artist’s social following is key for brands to sign the dotted line in a collaboration. They must be popular, that essential that must-have quality that translates well into e-commerce sales. For example, Murakami has 2.5 million followers on Instagram, while KAWS has 3.5 million and Daniel Arsham has 1.2 million followers. That might be what catches a brand’s attention, but that’s not where it should end. “Brands should ask themselves, ‘What is this artist going to bring to my brand that my brand doesn’t already have?’” notes Burrows.
They need to have a visual signature – we all know Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints from a mile away – but also be willing to be flexible.
“By using their artistic signature, does it engage the customer and tell a story? Can the art actually fit and work on the ‘canvas’ of the apparel or footwear or accessory item?” asks Burrows. “Equally important, could this artist bring to our brand an element of mass appeal, or can this artist add prestige or a unique sense of design?”
“By using their artistic signature, does it engage the customer and tell a story? Can the art actually fit and work on the ‘canvas’ of the apparel or footwear or accessory item? Equally important, could this artist bring to our brand an element of mass appeal, or can this artist add prestige or a unique sense of design?"
It’s really about using the artist to bring a new customer base to the brand. When Arsham designed a basketball for Tiffany & Co, it was a symbol of something much larger going on: Older, more conservative brands rebranding themselves as cool and savvy – it helps Tiffany connect with a sports audience in a legitimate way, as Arsham signed on as the creative director of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers in 2021.
Imagine a collage artist who creates a visual collage that is a snapshot of our cultural landscape, cutting and pasting images together while defying copyright infringement. KAWS samples Disney’s Mickey Mouse by cutting his face in half. Arsham creates a sculpture of Pokemon’s Pikachu with digital chunks taken out of his ear and stomach.
The artists themselves may be somewhat “niche” to a specific audience, but because they use well-known pop culture images, they’re able to vault their work and, perhaps, their names, to a more recognizable status. It's a formula that works: Arsham is a serial collaborator, having worked with Pharrell Williams, adidas and Kim Jones, the artistic director of menswear at Christian Dior.
“I think the challenge with artists is that many are not widely known — the goal for a brand collab is to access a customer base you don’t usually have,” said Burrows. Celebrities are often a better bet, like the long row of celebrities churning out beauty brands, whether it's Lady Gaga or Selena Gomez. Artists don’t have the same audience grab as, say, Kim Kardashian’s Skims collab with Fendi.
“Artists do not have that same broad-based consumer power,” said Burrows. “They’re important to tell niche stories, I don’t see them becoming ‘mainstream’ in the same way that celebrity beauty brands have.”
These artists might be hyped, but are not exactly mainstream, and that's a pro, not a con, depending who you ask. Being niche actually gives them more of an appeal in a way to brands, like streetwear brand and retailer Kith, which communicates a shared insider knowledge to their audience (and recently did a collab with Los Angeles artist SUPERWAXX for Black History Month). It’s a similar approach to Tiffany, a big brand that wants to access a more culturally-specific audience who knows and follows Daniel Arsham. These artists walk a fine line as they maintain these huge, financially beneficial collabs, while still maintaining some level of exclusivity to their artwork.